Lions’ momentum building

Penn State made a huge jump – about 10 places – in the national rankings from James Franklin’s first recruiting class to his second.

The Nittany Lions are poised to take another big step upward in 2016.

“It should be an even better class,” said Ryan Snyder, who covers Lion recruiting for BlueWhite Illustrated.

Right now, it’s looking like the Lions will have fewer scholarships to offer in the new recruiting season – director of player personnel Andy Frank put the number as somewhere in the high teens to low 20s at Penn State’s signing day press conference.

Penn State, though, already is off to a flying start with commitments from four four-star prospects: New York quarterback Jake Zembiec, Woodland Hills tailback Miles Sanders, Maryland defensive end Shane Simmons and Michigan cornerback Lavert Hill, who joined the class on what turned out to be an unofficial early junior day on Jan. 31.

The Lions have another junior day slated for later this month. By then, it wouldn’t be a shock if Lake-Lehman center/guard Connor McGovern, Pittsburgh Central Catholic corner Damar Hamlin and Michigan’s Quinn Nordin – considered the top place-kicker in the class – had joined the fold.

“If they win, I think the potential for a top 10 class is certainly there,” Lions 247’s Sean Fitz said. “There’s a lot of talent in the region. “There are a lot of guys that they’ve been on since they’ve arrived at Penn State, and we’ll see if those relationships pay off.”

After finding ways to fight through the scholarship limitations imposed by the NCAA over the last few years, balancing the roster has been a big point of emphasis for Penn State under Franklin. Previous coach Bill O’Brien took the path of focusing the majority of the Nittany Lions’ scholarships toward skill position players, taking the attitude that there was more dropoff there to walk-on players than there would be on the line.

While that seemed to be a prudent approach, it has left Penn State with some depth issues in the trenches. They addressed defensive end very well in 2015 and brought in four offensive linemen, as well, but this probably is only the beginning.

“I think you see maybe eight or nine guys on both sides of the line of scrimmage. From there, you see how your numbers progress,” Greg Pickel of FightOnState.com said. “I think we’ll see the bulk of this class be in the ‘meat’ category, if you will.”

According to 247Sports, Penn State already has offers out to 18 offensive linemen. In addition to McGovern, the Lions seem to be sitting very well with Exeter’s Michal Menet, New Jersey’s Will Fries, Maryland’s Terrance Davis, Washington D.C.’s Jauan Williams and Florida’s Parker Boudreaux. All but Fries is a consensus four-star player. Boudreaux is reputed to have more than 70 Division I offers and already has made an unofficial visit to Penn State.

The Lions could get even richer at defensive end. Simmons is a consensus five-star recruit, and he’s reputed to be very active in recruiting other prospects. Penn State also is in good shape with New Jersey’s Ron Johnson, D.C.’s Terrell Hall, Maryland-via-IMG Academy’s Rahshaun Smith, Philadelphia’s Shaka Toney and California’s Oluwole Betiku. LaVar Arrington is the legal guardian of the Nigerian-born Betiku.

The biggest need, though, is at defensive tackle. O’Brien and Larry Johnson made a strong first impression with New Jersey’s Rashan Gary, the consensus No. 2 player in the entire class, and he has made an unofficial visit during the season. However, the analysts think he’ll be a tough pull for the Lions.

There’s plenty of other appealing talent, though, including Baltimore’s Ellis Jordan, Philadelphia’s Karamo Dioubate and Illinois’ Naquan Jones. Jordan is expected to visit Penn State in the very near future along with Gilman High School teammates Devery Hamilton and Stephen Spanellis. Hamilton is a 6-foot-6, 270-pound offensive tackle/defensive end. Spanellis is a 315-pound offensive lineman.

Beyond them, some of the other players on which to keep an eye are New Jersey athlete Jordan Fuller, Canadian defensive back Patrice Rene, Hickory safety Andrew Pryts, Florida wideout Tre Nixon, Ohio linebacker Brendan Ferns, Maryland wideout Trevon Diggs, McKeesport linebacker Khaleke Hudson and Philadelphia area tight ends Cary Angeline and Naseir Upshaw.

Although Zembiec already has committed, it isn’t out of the question that Penn State tries to sign two quarterbacks in this class, especially with the chance starter Christian Hackenberg could declare for the NFL Draft, leaving just two scholarship signal-callers on the current roster. They’ve been linked with Maryland’s Dwayne Haskins, South Carolina commit Brandon Mclwain and Michigan decommit Messiah deWeaver.